essay

A Better Way To Plan: Priorities and Processes

I woke up one morning and I made my list of everything that needed to happen that day. My biggest concern was my home renovation–there was a whole lot that I would have liked to get done before winter. I tried to create timelines and figure out how we could get it all done when I wanted to. The timelines never worked out right, and I found myself overwhelmed and stressed about the house. I wrote a to do list, but I had no motivation to complete it, so I did nothing.

My planning wasn’t working. I was sabotaging myself with it, and I needed a better way. And I think I found a better way.

First, this is what I need to get rid of:

  1. Yearly goal setting. It is usually too hard to plan out an entire year at a time. By the end of the year, I am always in a different place and my goals aren’t relevant anymore.
  2. Monthly goals. A month is usually too short to accomplish significant projects.
  3. Task-oriented planning with looming deadlines. Planning should include more than time-sensitive to-do lists. If that’s all I have, then I don’t really make any real personal progress. I get too attached to productivity, when most of my actual values are not related to being productive.
  4. Not allowing for flexibility. I’ve planned out days in 15-minute increments before. When I could follow that plan, it was awesome, but usually I need more flexibility than time stamping everything I need to do in a day. Like most people, I end up severely underestimating the time that something will take.

And now, this is my better way of planning:

Seasonal Planning

It’s pretty easy to divide up the calendar year into seasons or other sections, and life sort of falls nicely into those seasons (particularly if you and/or your kids are in school). I currently have my fall goals for September to December, and then I’ll set goals again from January to April, and then from May to August. (I could also do three-month periods instead of four-month periods, but the idea is still the same). Seasonal goals are less stressful for me because I have a longer time frame than with monthly planning and I’m able to think more about the structure of the projects I’m working on. And unlike year planning, I can usually forecast the next few months with some degree of accuracy.

Priorities and Values

I set productive goals (getting something done) and character goals (who I want to be). Character goals are important, but can be hard to quantify, and I actually still struggle with how to incorporate them into my planning.

But when I am planning, it is good to remember what I value and actually find important: my relationships with my Heavenly Father, my husband, my kids, other family members, and friends and neighbors. I also want to keep progressing and improving, becoming more patient and loving. My relationships suffer when I only focus on getting things done.

Then if I prioritize and order those productive goals, I can be more efficient by focusing on a few important things.

Usually I have a few different major projects in the seasonal planning, and then I can prioritize subtasks within those projects. I don’t like to have deadlines or a time frame, because I need more flexibility. I just need a general order of what to do next.

When I’m planning my week or my day, I look at the things that come next and write them down for easy reference. I write down more than what I think I can do in a week or a day–so I’m not trying to get everything done and checked off. I’m instead giving myself general guidance of what I could do.

Processes

Then I have to determine my processes. When and how am I going to work and when am I going to play? When can I work on relationships? What can I eliminate?

I’ve been inspired by Martin from Wintergatan Wednesday, and he has this awesome video that talked about internalized and externalized goals. There is a lot we can’t control. I can’t estimate how long something will take or what complications will come up.  My best goals can deal more with things that I can control.

It’s better to have a goal to write for an hour than to have a goal to finish a story or an essay. I try to focus more on those processes: what do I want my daily life to look like? How do I want to live?

This week, for example, I want to work on my house for a few hours every day (and each day is a bit different on when I can do it). This is my process that I can use in order to slowly achieve my prioritized list. I will also turn off computer from 4:00 to 8:00 so that I can focus on my kids.

Finding deep work

I’ve been reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, which has made me think about certain projects where I need to work more deeply instead of just trying to accomplish things without focus. My children constantly interrupt me. But I can use the rare, undistracted moments for deep and meaningful work. I remember there was one day when I took three hours and just worked on my school work while my husband was watching my kids. I loved focusing intensely, and I want to do more of that.

And sometimes I find it better to focus on a few big things and do those well instead of trying to do lots of little things.

Eliminating that which has no worth

If I want to focus, I have to learn to eliminate the things that don’t have any much worth in my life. Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism talks more about this. Distractions are mostly technology-related: YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, random Google searches, etc. I really have to watch myself and it’s a process that I am still working on.

But when I get stressed out, I often want to numb my feelings by getting on my computer and letting those website determine what I think about. This isn’t always a bad thing, but I want more mental space in my life to listen and to think.

Leisure and thinking time

I need to have some more space and flexibility for the things that aren’t productive. I want to have time to do what I love, not just what I think I need to do, and time when I’m not constrained by goals and accomplishments, but I just get to exist.

My relationships need my time and attention. And I want to do things that are an end to themselves, not a means to some other end. I rarely have time to ponder and think, read a book just because, or sit outside and enjoy nature. I want more of that time where I am enjoying what I’m doing and who I am with.

Habits

I am trying to develop better habits in my life. The book Atomic Habits talks about focusing more on how you get things done and those processes than just thinking about what you want to get done. Good habits are way more productive than good to-do lists.

Other things that have helped:

  • Planning before I go to bed (instead of when I wake up in the morning) can be very helpful so that I wake up and know what I’m doing, instead of slowly wandering about my mornings.
  • I enjoy using my spiral-bound bullet journal to do my planning because it is so flexible.
  • There are many times I just need to shed my guilt and throw it away.

Putting it in action

So by focusing more on priorities and processes (instead of to-do lists), I don’t feel as overwhelmed. I feel like I’m could live up to my potential a lot better, because I’m looking at a bigger picture of how I want to live, not just what I want to do.

Here is how I have put it into action on planning my home renovation:

  1. I set seasonal goals of renovating the exterior of the house, renovating the bathroom, and then starting on framing and electrical. My plan is to work on the house every Friday and Saturday with my husband, as well as working on it a few hours every other day.
  2. I write a list of everything that needs to get done in the next stage and update it regularly. The list is grouped into basic categories.
  3. I prioritize this list. I worry about the order, not a timeline. This prioritization is a loose guideline, and I am often working on more than one thing at a time. But instead of trying to accomplish the whole project at once, I’m just working on what comes next.
  4. Then I figure out my processes to work on those tasks. Instead of writing what I want to accomplish in a week, I write down how I want to work in that week.
  5. Every Friday and Saturday, we work on the house. That’s all I have to do on those days. And then I plan other time throughout the week where I can work. I write down what comes next, but I won’t get all of it done. I’ve accomplished a goal for the week if I follow the process, not it I checked everything off.

I’m more free from the stress of always having to do and never doing enough. I start to actually live the way I want to live.

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